Part 1 here
IV. Unification of the Labor Unions
Only one significant political factor remained: the Marxist trade unions. For many years they had represented one of the country’s most potent forces. Although nominally only an economic factor, they had also been a major political factor, furnishing the Communists with their militants and the Social Democrats with the bulk of their voters.
For fifteen years they had been a constant and fanatical pressure group, stirring up turmoil in the streets and formulating ever greater demands. The unions had long provided the Left with large amounts of money, funds that were continually replenished by the contributions of millions of union members.
Here again, well before the collapse of the party-ridden Weimar Republic, disillusion with the unions had become widespread among the working masses. They were starving. The hundreds of Socialist and Communist deputies stood idly by, impotent to provide any meaningful help to the desperate proletariat.
Their leaders had no proposals to remedy, even partially, the great distress of the people; no plans for large-scale public works, no industrial restructuring, no search for markets abroad.
Moreover, they offered no energetic resistance to the pillaging by foreign countries of the Reich’s last financial resources: this a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles that the German Socialists had voted to ratify in June of 1919, and which they had never since had the courage effectively to oppose.
The few palliative modifications that had been won, wrested with great difficulty from the rapacious Allies, had been achieved by Gustav Stresemann, the conservative foreign affairs minister. Although he enjoyed little or no support, even from the politicians, Stresemann fought stubbornly, in spite of faltering health, to liberate the Reich. Enduring fainting fits, and with a goiter, growing ever more enormous, knotted around his neck like a boa constrictor, Stresemann, even as he was dying, was the only Weimar leader who had seriously attempted to pry away the foreign talons from the flesh of the German people.
In 1930, 1931 and 1932, German workers had watched the disaster grow: the number of unemployed rose from two million to three, to four, to five, then to six million. At the same time, unemployment benefits fell lower and lower, finally to disappear completely. Everywhere one saw dejection and privation: emaciated mothers, children wasting away in sordid lodgings, and thousands of beggars in long sad lines.
The failure, or incapacity, of the leftist leaders to act, not to mention their insensitivity, had stupefied the working class. Of what use were such leaders with their empty heads and empty hearts — and, often enough, full pockets?
Well before January 30, thousands of workers had already joined up with Hitler’s dynamic formations, which were always hard at it where they were most needed. Many joined the National Socialists when they went on strike. Hitler, himself a former worker and a plain man like themselves, was determined to eliminate unemployment root and branch. He wanted not merely to defend the laborer’s right to work, but to make his calling one of honor, to insure him respect and to integrate him fully into a living community of all the Germans, who had been divided class against class.
In January 1933, Hitler’s victorious troops were already largely proletarian in character, including numerous hard-fisted street brawlers, many unemployed, who no longer counted economically or socially.
Meanwhile, membership in the Marxist labor unions had fallen off enormously: among thirteen million socialist and Communist voters in 1932, no more than five million were union members. Indifference and discouragement had reached such levels that many members no longer paid their union dues. Many increasingly dispirited Marxist leaders began to wonder if perhaps the millions of deserters were the ones who saw things clearly. Soon they wouldn’t wonder any longer.
Even before Hitler won Reichstag backing for his “Enabling Act,” Germany’s giant labor union federation, the ADGB, had begun to rally to the National Socialist cause. As historian Joachim Fest acknowledged: “On March 20, the labor federation’s executive committee addressed a kind of declaration of loyalty to Hitler.” (J. Fest, Hitler, p. 413.)
Hitler then took a bold and clever step. The unions had always clamored to have the First of May recognized as a worker’s holiday, but the Weimar Republic had never acceded to their request. Hitler, never missing an opportunity, grasped this one with both hands. He did more than grant this reasonable demand: he proclaimed the First of May a national holiday.
Just as the Socialist party had gone from a vote in the Reichstag against Hitler (March 23, 1933) to a vote of support (May 17, 1933), so did the union leaders make a 180-degree turn within weeks. At one stroke, Hitler granted to the union what they had vainly asked of every previous government: a holiday celebrated by the entire nation. He announced that in order to honor Labor, he would organize the biggest meeting in Germany’s history on the First of May at the Tempelhof airfield in Berlin. Caught unprepared, but on the whole very pleased to take advantage of the situation by throwing in their lot with National Socialism and, what is more, to take part in a mass demonstration the like of which even Marxist workers could scarcely imagine, the union leadership called upon their leftist rank and file to join, with banners flying, the mass meetings held that May Day across Germany, and to acclaim Hitler.
I myself attended the memorable meeting at the Tempelhof field in 1933. By nine o’clock that morning, giant columns, some of workers, others of youth groups, marching in cadence down the pavement of Berlin’s greatest avenues, had started off towards the airfield to which Hitler had called together all Germans. All Germany would follow the rally as it was transmitted nationwide by radio.
By noon hundreds of thousands of workers — Hitlerites and non-Hitlerites — were massed on the vast field. The demonstrators observed impeccable order. Hundreds of tables, quickly set up by the Party, provided the ever-increasing throngs with sandwiches, sausages, and mugs of beer at cost, to refresh the new arrivals after their march.
Everyone, of course, was standing, and would remain so for up to fourteen hours.
A fabulous speaker’s platform stood out against the sky, three stories high, flamboyant with huge flags, as impressive as a naval shipyard. As the hours went by, thousands of prominent figures took their seats, including many members of the foreign diplomatic corps. By the close of the day, a million and a half spectators stretched to the outermost edges of the immense plain. Soldiers and civilians mingled together. Fanfares sounded repeatedly. A political meeting no longer, it had become a festival, a sort of fantastic Bruegelian kermess, where middle-class burghers, generals and workers all met and fraternized as Germans and as equals.
Night fell and Hitler appeared. His speaker’s rostrum was indeed like the prow of a giant ship. The hundreds of beacons which had illuminated the great sea of humanity were now extinguished. Suddenly, Hitler burst forth from the dark, a solitary figure, high in the air, lit by the dazzling glare of spotlights.
In the dark, a group of determined opponents could easily have heckled Hitler or otherwise sabotaged the meeting. Perhaps a third of the onlookers had been Socialists or Communists only three months previously. But not a single hostile voice was raised during the entire ceremony. There was only universal acclamation.
Ceremony is the right word for it. It was an almost magical rite. Hitler and Goebbels had no equals in the arranging of dedicatory ceremonies of this sort. First there were popular songs, then great Wagnerian hymns to grip the audience. Germany has a passion for orchestral music, and Wagner taps the deepest and most secret vein of the German soul, its romanticism, its inborn sense of the powerful and the grand.
Meanwhile the hundreds of flags floated above the rostrum, redeemed from the darkness by arrows of light.
Now Hitler strode to the rostrum. For those standing at the end of the field, his face must have appeared vanishingly small, but his words flooded instantaneously across the acres of people in his audience.
A Latin audience would have preferred a voice less harsh, more delicately expressive. But there was no doubt that Hitler spoke to the psyche of the German people.
Germans have rarely had the good fortune to experience the enchantment of the spoken word. In Germany, the tone has always been set by ponderous speakers, more fond of elephantine pedantry than oratorical passion. Hitler, as a speaker, was a prodigy, the greatest orator of his century. He possessed, above all, what the ordinary speaker lacks: a mysterious ability to project power.
A bit like a medium or a sorcerer, he was seized, even transfixed, as he addressed a crowd. It responded to Hitler’s projection of power, radiating it back, establishing, in the course of myriad exchanges, a current that both orator and audience gave to and drew from equally. One had to personally experience him speaking to understand this phenomenon.
This special gift is what lay at the basis of Hitler’s ability to win over the masses. His high-voltage, lightning-like projection transported and transformed all who experienced it. Tens of millions were enlightened, riveted and inflamed by the fire of his anger, irony, and passion.
By the time the cheering died away that May first evening, hundreds of thousands of previously indifferent or even hostile workers who had come to Tempelhof at the urging of their labor federation leaders were now won over. They had become followers, like the SA stormtroopers whom so many there that evening had brawled with in recent years.
The great human sea surged back from Tempelhof to Berlin. A million and a half people had arrived in perfect order, and their departure was just as orderly. No bottlenecks halted the cars and buses. For those of us who witnessed it, this rigorous, yet joyful, discipline of a contented people was in itself a source of wonder. Everything about the May Day mass meeting had come off as smoothly as clockwork.
The memory of that fabulous crowd thronging back to the center of Berlin will never leave me. A great many were on foot. Their faces were now different faces, as though they had been imbued with a strange and totally new spirit. The non-Germans in the crowd were as if stunned, and no less impressed than Hitler’s fellow countrymen.
The French ambassador, Andre Francois-Poncet, noted:
The foreigners on the speaker’s platform as guests of honor were not alone in carrying away the impression of a truly beautiful and wonderful public festival, an impression that was created by the regime’s genius for organization, by the night-time display of uniforms, by the play of lights, the rhythm of the music, by the flags and the colorful fireworks; and they were not alone in thinking that a breath of reconciliation and unity was passing over the Third Reich.
“It is our wish,” Hitler had exclaimed, as though taking heaven as his witness, “to get along together and to struggle together as brothers, so that at the hour when we shall come before God, we might say to him: ‘See, Lord, we have changed. The German people are no longer a people ashamed, a people mean and cowardly and divided. No, Lord! The German people have become strong in their spirit, in their will, in their perseverance, in their acceptance of any sacrifice. Lord, we remain faithful to Thee! Bless our struggle!” (A. Francois-Poncet, Souvenirs d’une ambassade à Berlin, p. 128.)
Who else could have made such an incantatory appeal without making himself look ridiculous?
No politician had ever spoken of the rights of the workers with such faith and such force, or had laid out in such clear terms the social plan he pledged to carry out in behalf of the common people.
The next day, the newspaper of the proletarian left, the “Union Journal,” reported on this mass meeting at which at least two thirds — a million — of those attending were workers. “This May First was victory day,” the paper summed up.
With the workers thus won over, what further need was there for the thousands of labor union locals that for so long had poisoned the social life of the Reich and which, in any case, had accomplished nothing of a lasting, positive nature?
Within hours of the conclusion of that “victory” meeting at the Tempelhof field, the National Socialists were able to peacefully take complete control of Germany’s entire labor union organization, including all of its buildings, enterprises and banks. An era of Marxist obstruction abruptly came to an end: from now on, a single national organization would embody the collective will and interests of all of Germany’s workers.
Although he was now well on his way to creating what he pledged would be a true “government of the people,” Hitler also realized that great obstacles remained. For one thing, the Communist rulers in Moscow had not dropped their guard — or their guns. Restoring the nation would take more than words and promises, it would take solid achievements. Only then would the enthusiasm shown by the working class at the May First mass meeting be an expression of lasting victory.
How could Hitler solve the great problem that had defied solution by everyone else (both in Germany and abroad): putting millions of unemployed back to work?
What would Hitler do about wages? Working hours? Leisure time? Housing? How would he succeed in winning, at long last, respect for the rights and dignity of the worker?
How could men’s lives be improved — materially, morally, and, one might even say, spiritually? How would he proceed to build a new society fit for human beings, free of the inertia, injustices and prejudices of the past?
“National Socialism,” Hitler had declared at the outset, “has its mission and its hour; it is not just a passing movement but a phase of history.”
The instruments of real power now in his hands — an authoritarian state, its provinces subordinate but nonetheless organic parts of the national whole — Hitler had acted quickly to shake himself free of the last constraints of the impotent sectarian political parties. Moreover, he was now able to direct a cohesive labor force that was no longer split into a thousand rivulets but flowed as a single, mighty current.
Hitler was self-confident, sure of the power of his own conviction. He had no intention, or need, to resort to the use of physical force. Instead, he intended to win over, one by one, the millions of Germans who were still his adversaries, and even those who still hated him.
His conquest of Germany had taken years of careful planning and hard work. Similarly, he would now realize his carefully worked out plans for transforming the state and society. This meant not merely changes in administrative or governmental structures, but far-reaching social programs.
He had once vowed: “The hour will come when the 15 million people who now hate us will be solidly behind us and will acclaim with us the revival we shall create together.” Eventually he would succeed in winning over even many of his most refractory skeptics and adversaries.
His army of converts was already forming ranks. In a remarkable tribute, historian Joachim Fest felt obliged to acknowledge unequivocally:
Hitler had moved rapidly from the status of a demagogue to that of a respected statesman. The craving to join the ranks of the victors was spreading like an epidemic, and the shrunken minority of those who resisted the urge were being visibly pushed into isolation … The past was dead. The future, it seemed, belonged to the regime, which had more and more followers, which was being hailed everywhere and suddenly had sound reasons on its side.
And even the prominent leftist writer Kurt Tucholsky, sensing the direction of the inexorable tide that was sweeping Germany, vividly commented: “You don’t go railing against the ocean.” (J. Fest, Hitler, pp. 415 f.)
“Our power,” Hitler was now able to declare, “no longer belongs to any territorial fraction of the Reich, nor to any single class of the nation, but to the people in its totality.”
Much still remained to be done, however. So far, Hitler had succeeded in clearing the way of obstacles to his program. Now the time to build had arrived.
So many others had failed to tackle the many daunting problems that were now his responsibility. Above all, the nation demanded a solution to the great problem of unemployment. Could Hitler now succeed where others had so dismally failed?
V. Where To Find The Billions?
As he stood, silent and preoccupied, at his chancellery window on that January evening, receiving the acclaim of the crowd, Hitler was seized with anxiety — and not without reason.
In his memoirs, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht recalled: “I had the impression that he was a man fairly crushed by the weight of the responsibility he was taking on … That profound emotional upheaval of which I was a witness could not possibly have been mere playacting: it betrayed true feelings.” (H. Schacht, Memoires d’un magicien, vol. II, p. 52.)
Hitler, however, was a man capable of overcoming such anxieties. Although he faced an agonizing national tragedy — immense unemployment, general misery, almost total industrial stagnation — which no other politician had been able even to ameliorate, this youthful leader would take on this challenge with an extraordinary sense of purpose and will.
Hitler had no sooner been voted plenary powers than he rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and begun to carry out his well-laid plans.
Unlike the other responsible — or irresponsible — politicians of twentieth-century Europe, Hitler did not believe that fighting for his country’s economic health meant having to impassively accept one setback after another, stand idly by while industries died, or look on as millions of unemployed workers tramped the streets.
In those days, the only solution to these problems that was accepted by politicians and economists in the democracies was to drastically cut spending, both governmental and private. Belt-tightening was the agreed-upon remedy.
Thus, Germany’s leaders prior to Hitler had cut salaries by 25 percent, limited payment of unemployment benefits to six months, and reduced total private investment by five sixths. The country’s standard of living had collapsed like a deflated balloon. At the end of six months the unemployed obviously had not found new jobs. To the contrary, they were joined by long lines of new unemployed. Deprived of all means of subsistence, they gravitated to the welfare offices.
People spent less and less, with the inevitable consequence that industries producing consumer goods closed their doors, one after another, for lack of orders, thereby sending thousands more unemployed into the streets. In 1932, Germany’s industries were languishing, their production reduced by half.
Yearly private investment had fallen from three billion marks to barely 500 million. No new blood had been injected into the industrial system, no workplaces modernized. The economy stagnated.
The government not only lacked any new initiatives, it was almost bankrupt. Fiscal receipts had fallen to ten billion marks, of which the meager and short-term unemployment benefits alone absorbed two thirds.
Germany couldn’t wait for a business upswing to get the economy moving again. As Hitler had long understood, the government had to bring economic renewal by bold action and imaginative enterprise.
Unemployment could be combated and eliminated only by giving industry the financial means to start up anew, to modernize, thus creating millions of new jobs.
The normal rate of consumption would not be restored, let alone increased, unless one first raised the starvation-level allowances that were making purchases of any kind a virtual impossibility. On the contrary, production and sales would have to be restored before the six million unemployed could once again become purchasers.
The great economic depression could be overcome only by restimulating industry, by bringing industry into step with the times, and by promoting the development of new products.
Because Germany had no petroleum, for example, the production of synthetic gasoline (from coal) should be encouraged as much as possible. The technique was already known, but it needed to be applied. Similarly, Germany was able to produce an artificial substitute for rubber, “Buna.” But the plans for its development and production were still stored away in file cabinets. Only a small percentage of practical new inventions ever left the records files.
Great public works projects were another way to create new jobs, stimulate industrial activity, and revive the economy. For one thing, Germany’s mediocre roads needed vast improvement. Moreover, the demands of the time called for the construction of a national network of modern highways. Radiating thousands of kilometers, these great concrete lifelines would encourage increased commerce and communication among the Reich’s many regions.
New highways would also encourage increased automobile production. Considering the potential, Germany was still quite backward in automobile production. It manufactured only one-fifth as many cars as France.
Nearly ten years earlier, while in his prison cell, Hitler had already envisioned a formidable system of national highways. He had also conceived of a small, easily affordable automobile (later known as the “Volkswagen”), and had even suggested its outline. It should have the shape of a June bug, he proposed. Nature itself suggested the car’s aerodynamic line.
Until Hitler came to power, a car was the privilege of the rich. It was not financially within the reach of the middle class, much less of the worker. The “Volkswagen,” costing one-tenth as much as the standard automobile of earlier years, would eventually become a popular work vehicle and a source of pleasure after work: a way to unwind and get some fresh air, and of discovering, thanks to the new Autobahn highway network, a magnificent country that then, in its totality, was virtually unknown to the German worker.
From the beginning, Hitler wanted this economical new car to be built for the millions. The production works would also become one of Germany’s most important industrial centers and employers.
During his imprisonment, Hitler had also drawn up plans for the construction of popular housing developments and majestic public buildings.
Some of Hitler’s rough sketches still survive. They include groups of individual worker’s houses with their own gardens (which were to be built in the hundreds of thousands), a plan for the covered stadium in Berlin, and a vast congress hall, unlike any other in the world, that would symbolize the grandeur of the National Socialist revolution.
“A building with a monumental dome,” historian Werner Maser has explained, “the plan of which he drew while he was writing Mein Kampf, would have a span of 46 meters, and a capacity of 150 to 190 thousand people standing. The interior of the building would have been 17 times larger than Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.” “That hall,” architect Albert Speer has pointed out, “was not just an idle dream impossible of achievement.”
Hitler’s imagination, therefore, had long been teeming with a number of ambitious projects, many of which would eventually be realized.
Fortunately, the needed entrepreneurs, managers and technicians were on hand. Hitler would not have to improvise.
Historian Werner Maser, although quite anti-Hitler — like nearly all of his colleagues (how else would they have found publishers?) — has acknowledged: “From the beginning of his political career, he [Hitler] took great pains systematically to arrange for whatever he was going to need in order to carry out his plans.”
“Hitler was distinguished,” Maser has also noted, “by an exceptional intelligence in technical matters.” Hitler had acquired his knowledge by devoting many thousands of hours to technical studies from the time of his youth.
“Hitler read an endless number of books,” explained Dr. Schacht. “He acquired a very considerable amount of knowledge and made masterful use of it in discussions and speeches. In certain respects he was a man endowed with genius. He had ideas that no one else would ever have thought of, ideas that resulted in the ending of great difficulties, sometimes by measures of astonishing simplicity or brutality.”
Many billions of marks would be needed to begin the great socioeconomic revolution that was destined, as Hitler has always intended, to make Germany once again the European leader in industry and commerce and, most urgently, to rapidly wipe out unemployment in Germany. Where would the money be found? And, once obtained, how would these funds be allotted to ensure maximum effectiveness in their investment?
Hitler was by no means a dictator in matters of the economy. He was, rather, a stimulator. His government would undertake to do only that which private initiative could not.
Hitler believed in the importance of individual creative imagination and dynamism, in the need for every person of superior ability and skill to assume responsibility.
He also recognized the importance of the profit motive. Deprived of the prospect of having his efforts rewarded, the person of ability often refrains from running risks. The economic failure of Communism has demonstrated this. In the absence of personal incentives and the opportunity for real individual initiative, the Soviet “command economy” lagged in all but a few fields, its industry years behind its competitors.
State monopoly tolls the death of all initiative, and hence of all progress.
For all men selflessly to pool their wealth might be marvelous, but it is also contrary to human nature. Nearly every man desires that his labor shall improve his own condition and that of his family, and feels that his brain, creative imagination, and persistence well deserve their reward.
Because it disregarded these basic psychological truths, Soviet Communism, right to the end, wallowed in economic mediocrity, in spite of its immense reservoir of manpower, its technical expertise, and its abundant natural resources, all of which ought to have made it an industrial and technological giant.
Hitler was always adverse to the idea of state management of the economy. He believed in elites. “A single idea of genius,” he used to say, “has more value than a lifetime of conscientious labor in an office.”
Just as there are political or intellectual elites, so also is there an industrial elite. A manufacturer of great ability should not be restrained, hunted down by the internal revenue services like a criminal, or be unappreciated by the public. On the contrary, it is important for economic development that the industrialist be encouraged morally and materially, as much as possible.
The most fruitful initiatives Hitler would take from 1933 on would be on behalf of private enterprise. He would keep an eye on the quality of their directors, to be sure, and would shunt aside incompetents, quite a few of them at times, but he also supported the best ones, those with the keenest minds, the most imaginative and bold, even if their political opinions did not always agree with his own.
“There is no question,” he stated very firmly, “of dismissing a factory owner or directory under the pretext that he is not a National Socialist.”
Hitler would exercise the same moderation, the same pragmatism, in the administrative as well as in the industrial sphere.
What he demanded of his co-workers, above all, was competence and effectiveness. The great majority of Third Reich functionaries — some 80 percent — were never enrolled in the National Socialist party. Several of Hitler’s ministers, like Konstantin von Neurath and Schwerin von Krosigk, and ambassadors to such key posts as Prague, Vienna and Ankara, were not members of the party. But they were capable.
While Hitler kept a close eye on opportunists (such as Franz von Papen, who was both intelligent and clever) he knew how to make the best use of such men, and to honor them and recognize their achievements.
Similarly, he did not hesitate to keep on competent bureaucrats chosen by his predecessors. A good example was Dr. Otto Meissner, who had headed the presidential chancellery under the socialist Ebert and the conservative von Hindenburg, and who had done everything in his power, up to the last minute, to torpedo Hitler’s accession to power. But Meissner knew his work, and Hitler wisely kept him on the job. Hitler treated him with respect and confidence, and Meissner served the Führer faithfully and efficiently for twelve years.
Perhaps the most remarkable such case is that of Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the most discerning and competent of Germany’s financiers in 1933. A Hitler supporter? By no means! Schacht never was and never would be a supporter of anyone but himself. But he was the best in the business: for getting the Reich’s economy moving again, he had no equal. Ten years earlier, at the end of 1923, Schacht had financially rescued the Weimar Republic by helping to invent the “Rentenmark.” He was shrewd and imaginative, and thus capable of understanding and implementing the boldest of Hitler’s plans.
Schacht’s personal ambition was immense, but this was yet another reason for Hitler to give him every possibility to rise as high as he could. Within weeks of taking power, Hitler appointed him President of the Reichsbank, and then, a year later, as Economics Minister as well. Schacht couldn’t be happier.
Dangerous? Of course! Doubly so, inasmuch as Schacht was a capitalist to the core, with close ties to major foreign banking interests, not excluding Jewish financiers in London and New York. Moreover, Schacht cared little for Hitler’s revolutionary program, which regarded labor as the true source of national wealth.
Hitler called on the brilliant Dr. Schacht to devise new ways of acquiring the funds necessary for what he intended to accomplish. That was a great deal, but it was all. The collaboration went no further: Schacht was never permitted to intervene in political matters. When Schacht’s financial formulas had served their purpose, the collaboration would end. Until he was dismissed as Reichsbank president in 1939, Hitler made good use of his extraordinary talents. But Schacht never forgave his dismissal, and would nurse a seething resentment.
Determined to conjure up billions of marks as quickly as possible, and by any means available, in early February 1933 Hitler summoned Schacht’s predecessor as Reichsbank president, Dr. Hans Luther, to his office. Luther, who had been appointed to his post in 1930 by a previous administration, had old-fashioned views of extreme prudence in the management of state funds. Since the state’s coffers were nearly empty, he was all the more prudent. His detachable collar, stiff as a calling card, proclaimed the rigidity of his principles. He belonged to the old school of accountants who spend a dollar only when they have a dollar.
Hitler was well aware that this capable man was not happy to be presiding over a central bank that lacked funds. It was not, however, to have Luther empty the state treasury that Hitler had summoned him, but to ask him to devise new means of financing Germany’s recovery.
It was a question of imagination, but Luther’s brain was not a volcano of new ideas; it was a calculator.
“How much money,” Hitler asked him, “can you put at my disposal for creating jobs?” Luther hesitated to respond immediately; his mental calculator began functioning. After working out the calculations in his mind, he responded as though speaking to the director of a large financial firm: “One hundred and fifty million.”
An eloquent answer, it showed just how completely Hitler’s predecessors and their colleagues were lacking in their understanding of the scope of the resources that would be needed to save the Reich. One hundred and fifty million, at a time when the German government was pouring a billion marks every three months into unemployment benefits alone!
With a budget of 150 million marks, the German treasury would have been hard put to spare even three or four marks a day to the five or six or seven million unemployed over one short week.
Clearly, this question had never been put to Dr. Luther, and no Reich leader before Hitler had ever troubled to learn how to go about raising the funds that would be indispensable for carrying out a serious program to put Germany back to work.
Obviously, then, Dr. Luther was not the person to put Hitler’s program into effect. The new Chancellor then thought of Schacht, the sly old fox. He was always good for a trick, and now Hitler needed some of his magic.
“Herr Schacht,” he said, “we are assuredly in agreement on one point: no other single task facing the government at the moment can be so truly urgent as conquering unemployment. That will take a lot of money. Do you see any possibility of finding it apart from the Reichsbank?” And after a moment, he added: “How much would it take? Do you have any idea?”
Wishing to win Schacht over by appealing to his ambition, Hitler smiled and then asked: “Would you be willing to once again assume presidency of the Reichsbank?” Schacht let on that he had a sentimental concern for Dr. Luther, and did not want to hurt the incumbent’s feelings. Playing along, Hitler reassured Schacht that he would find an appropriate new job elsewhere for Luther.
Schacht then pricked up his ears, drew himself up, and focused his big round eyes on Hitler: “Well, if that’s the way it is,” he said, “then I am ready to assume the presidency of the Reichsbank again.”
His great dream was being realized. Schacht had been president of the Reichsbank between 1923 and 1930, but had been dismissed. Now he would return in triumph. He felt vindicated. Within weeks, the ingenious solution to Germany’s pressing financial woes would burst forth from his inventive brain.
“It was necessary,” Schacht later explained, “to discover a method that would avoid inflating the investment holdings of the Reichsbank immoderately and consequently increasing the circulation of money excessively.”
“Therefore,” he went on, “I had to find some means of getting the sums that were lying idle in pockets and banks, without meaning for it to be long term and without having it undergo the risk of depreciation. That was the reasoning behind the Mefo bonds.”
What were these “Mefo” bonds? Mefo was a contraction of the Metallurgische Forschungs-GmbH (Metallurgic Research Company). With a startup capitalization of one billion marks — which Hitler and Schacht arranged to be provided by the four giant firms of Krupp, Siemens, Deutsche Werke and Rheinmetall — this company would eventually promote many billions of marks worth of investment.
Enterprises, old and new, that filled government orders had only to draw drafts on Mefo for the amounts due. These drafts, when presented to the Reichsbank, were immediately convertible into cash. The success of the Mefo program depended entirely on public acceptance of the Mefo bonds. But the wily Schacht had planned well. Since Mefo bonds were short-term bonds that could be cashed in at any time, there was no real risk in buying, accepting or holding them. They bore an interest of four percent — a quite acceptable figure in those days — whereas banknotes hidden under the mattress earned nothing. The public quickly took all this into consideration and eagerly accepted the bonds.
While the Reichsbank was able to offer from its own treasury a relatively insignificant 150 million marks for Hitler’s war on unemployment, in just four years the German public subscribed more than 12 billion marks worth of Mefo bonds!
These billions, the fruit of the combined imagination, ingenuity and astuteness of Hitler and Schacht, swept away the temporizing and fearful conservatism of the bankers. Over the next four years, this enormous credit reserve would make miracles possible.
Soon after the initial billion-mark credit, Schacht added another credit of 600 million in order to finance the start of Hitler’s grand program for highway construction. This Autobahn program provided immediate work for 100,000 of the unemployed, and eventually assured wages for some 500,000 workers.
As large as this outlay was, it was immediately offset by a corresponding cutback in government unemployment benefits, and by the additional tax revenue generated as a result of the increase in living standard (spending) of the newly employed.
Within a few months, thanks to the credit created by the Mefo bonds, private industry once again dared to assume risks and expand. Germans returned to work by the hundreds of thousands.
Was Schacht solely responsible for this extraordinary turnaround? After the war, he answered for himself as a Nuremberg Tribunal defendant, where he was charged with having made possible the Reich’s economic revival:
I don’t think Hitler was reduced to begging for my help. If I had not served him, he would have found other methods, other means. He was not a man to give up. It’s easy enough for you to say, Mr. Prosecutor, that I should have watched Hitler die and not lifted a finger. But the entire working class would have died with him!
Even Marxists recognized Hitler’s success, and their own failure. In the June 1934 issue of the Zeitschrift fur Sozialismus, the journal of the German Social Democrats in exile, this acknowledgement appears: “Faced with the despair of proletarians reduced to joblessness, of young people with diplomas and no future, of the middle classes of merchants and artisans condemned to bankruptcy, and of farmers terribly threatened by the collapse in agricultural prices, we all failed. We weren’t capable of offering the masses anything but speeches about the glory of socialism.”
VI. The Social Revolution
Hitler’s tremendous social achievement in putting Germany’s six million unemployed back to work is seldom acknowledged today. Although it was much more than a transitory achievement, “democratic” historians routinely dismiss it in just a few lines. Since 1945, not a single objective scholarly study has been devoted to this highly significant, indeed unprecedented, historical phenomenon.
Similarly neglected is the body of sweeping reforms that dramatically changed the condition of the worker in Germany. Factories were transformed from gloomy caverns to spacious and healthy work centers, with natural lighting, surrounded by gardens and playing fields. Hundreds of thousands of attractive houses were built for working class families. A policy of several weeks of paid vacation was introduced, along with weekend and holiday trips by land and sea. A wide-ranging program of physical and cultural education for young workers was established, with the world’s best system of technical training. The Third Reich’s social security and workers’ health insurance system was the world’s most modern and complete.
This remarkable record of social achievement is routinely hushed up today because it embarrasses those who uphold the orthodox view of the Third Reich. Otherwise, readers might begin to think that perhaps Hitler was the greatest social builder of the twentieth century.
Because Hitler’s program of social reform was a crucially important — indeed, essential — part of his life work, a realization of this fact might induce people to view Hitler with new eyes. Not surprisingly, therefore, all this is passed over in silence. Most historians insist on treating Hitler and the Third Reich simplistically, as part of a Manichaean morality play of good versus evil.
Nevertheless, restoring work and bread to millions of unemployed who had been living in misery for years; restructuring industrial life; conceiving and establishing an organization for the effective defense and betterment of the nation’s millions of wage earners; creating a new bureaucracy and judicial system that guaranteed the civic rights of each member of the national community, while simultaneously holding each person to his or her responsibilities as a German citizen: this organic body of reforms was part of a single, comprehensive plan, which Hitler had conceived and worked out years earlier.
Without this plan, the nation would have collapsed into anarchy. All-encompassing, this program included broad industrial recovery as well as detailed attention to even construction of comfortable inns along the new highway network.
It took several years for a stable social structure to emerge from the French Revolution. The Soviets needed even more time: five years after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, hundreds of thousands of Russians were still dying of hunger and disease. In Germany, by contrast, the great machinery was in motion within months, with organization and accomplishment quickly meshing together.
The single task of constructing a national highway system that was without parallel in the world might have occupied a government for years. First, the problem had to be studied and assessed. Then, with due consideration for the needs of the population and the economy, the highway system had to be carefully planned in all its particulars.
As usual, Hitler had been remarkably farsighted. The concrete highways would be 24 meters in width. They would be spanned by hundreds of bridges and overpasses. To make sure that the entire Autobahn network would be in harmony with the landscape, a great deal of natural rock would be utilized. The artistically planned roadways would come together and diverge as if they were large-scale works of art. The necessary service stations and motor inns would be thoughtfully integrated into the overall scheme, each facility built in harmony with the local landscape and architectural style.
The original plan called for 7,000 kilometers of roadway. This projection would later be increased to 10,000, and then, after Austria was reunited with Germany, to 11,000 kilometers.
The financial boldness equaled the technical vision. These expressways were toll free, which seemed foolhardy to conservative financiers. But the savings in time and labor, and the dramatic increase in traffic, brought increased tax revenues, notably from gasoline.
Germany was thus building for herself not only a vast highway network, but an avenue to economic prosperity.
These greatly expanded transport facilities encouraged the development of hundreds of new business enterprises along the new expressways. By eliminating congestion on secondary roads, the new highways stimulated travel by hundreds of thousands of tourists, and with it increased tourism commerce.
Even the wages paid out to the men who built the Reichsautobahn network brought considerable indirect benefits. First, they allowed a drastic cut in payments of unemployment benefits, or 25 percent of the total paid in wages. Second, the many workers employed in constructing the expressways — 100,000, and later 150,000 — spent much of the additional 75 percent, which in turn generated increased tax revenues.
Imagine the problems, even before the first road was opened for traffic, posed by the mobilization of so many tens of thousands set to work in often uninhabited regions, in marshy areas, or in the shadows of Alpine peaks! It’s hard enough for 150,000 men to leave their homes and camp out in often rough terrain. But in addition, it was necessary, from the outset, to insure tolerable living conditions for the columns of men who had agreed to work by the sweat of their brows under the open sky.
In France, it was all but unthinkable in those days for a man out of work to move even 20 kilometers away to search for a new job. He was practically glued to his native village, his garden, and the corner cafe. The Germans were fundamentally no different, but by 1933 they were fed up with their enforced idleness. By pouring concrete, using a pick, or whatever it took, this hard-pressed people would bring dignity back in their lives.
No one balked at the inconvenience, the absence from home, or the long journey. The will to live a productive and meaningful life outweighed all other considerations.
To keep up the worker’s morale and spirit, lest he feel isolated or that he was merely being exploited, no effort was spared to provide material comfort, entertainment and instruction. The world had never before seen its like in any great construction project. At last, workers felt they were being treated like respected human beings who had bodies to be satisfied, hearts to be comforted, and brains to be enlightened.
Camp sites, supply bases, and recreation facilities were systematically set up, with everything moving forward methodically as the construction advanced. Fourteen mobile crews that provided motion picture entertainment traveled along, moving from one construction site to the next. And always and everywhere, labor was honored and celebrated.
Hitler personally dug the first spadeful of earth for the first Autobahn highway, linking Frankfurt-am-Main with Darmstadt. For the occasion, he brought along Dr. Schacht, the man whose visionary credit wizardry had made the project possible. The official procession moved ahead, three cars abreast in front, then six across, spanning the entire width of the autobahn.
The Second World War would abruptly halt work on this great construction undertaking. But what was envisioned and created remains as a deathless testimony to a man and an era.
Hitler’s plan to build thousands of low-cost homes also demanded a vast mobilization of manpower. He had envisioned housing that would be attractive, cozy, and affordable for millions of ordinary German working-class families. He had no intention of continuing to tolerate, as his predecessors had, cramped, ugly “rabbit warren” housing for the German people. The great barracks-like housing projects on the outskirts of factory towns, packed with cramped families, disgusted him.
The greater part of the houses he would build were single-story, detached dwellings, with small yards where children could romp, wives could grow vegetable and flower gardens, while the bread-winners could read their newspapers in peace after the day’s work. These single-family homes were built to conform to the architectural styles of the various German regions, retaining as much as possible the charming local variants.
Wherever there was no practical alternative to building large apartment complexes, Hitler saw to it that the individual apartments were spacious, airy and enhanced by surrounding lawns and gardens where the children could play safely.
The new housing was, of course, built in conformity with the highest standards of public health, a consideration notoriously neglected in previous working-class projects.
Generous loans, amortizable in ten years, were granted to newly married couples so they could buy their own homes. At the birth of each child, a fourth of the debt was cancelled. Four children, at the normal rate of a new arrival every two and a half years, sufficed to cancel the entire loan debt.
Once, during a conversation with Hitler, I expressed my astonishment at this policy. “But then, you never get back the total amount of your loans?,” I asked. “How so?” he replied, smiling. “Over a period of ten years, a family with four children brings in much more than our loans, through the taxes levied on a hundred different items of consumption.”
As it happened, tax revenues increased every year, in proportion to the rise in expenditures for Hitler’s social programs. In just a few years, revenue from taxes tripled. Hitler’s Germany never experienced a financial crisis.
To stimulate the moribund economy demanded the nerve, which Hitler had, to invest money that the government didn’t yet have, rather than passively waiting — in accordance with “sound” financial principles — for the economy to revive by itself.
Today, our whole era is dying economically because we have succumbed to fearful hesitation. Enrichment follows investment, not the other way around.
Since Hitler, only Ronald Reagan has seemed to understand this. As President, he realized that to restore prosperity in the United States meant boldly stimulating the economy with credits and a drastic reduction in taxes, instead of waiting for the country to emerge from economic stagnation on its own.
Even before the year 1933 had ended, Hitler had succeeded in building 202,119 housing units. Within four years he would provide the German people with nearly a million and a half (1,458,128) new dwellings!
Moreover, workers would no longer be exploited as they had been. A month’s rent for a worker could not exceed 26 marks, or about an eighth of the average wage then. Employees with more substantial salaries paid monthly rents of up to 45 marks maximum.
Equally effective social measures were taken in behalf of farmers, who had the lowest incomes. In 1933 alone 17,611 new farm houses were built, each of them surrounded by a parcel of land one thousand square meters in size. Within three years, Hitler would build 91,000 such farmhouses. The rental for such dwellings could not legally exceed a modest share of the farmer’s income. This unprecedented endowment of land and housing was only one feature of a revolution that soon dramatically improved the living standards of the Reich’s rural population.
The great work of national construction rolled along. An additional 100,000 workers quickly found employment in repairing the nation’s secondary roads. Many more were hired to work on canals, dams, drainage and irrigation projects, helping to make fertile some of the nation’s most barren regions.
Everywhere industry was hiring again, with some firms — like Krupp, IG Farben and the large automobile manufacturers — taking on new workers on a very large scale. As the country became more prosperous, car sales increased by more than 80,000 units in 1933 alone. Employment in the auto industry doubled. Germany was gearing up for full production, with private industry leading the way.
The new government lavished every assistance on the private sector, the chief factor in employment as well as production. Hitler almost immediately made available 500 million marks in credits to private business.
This start-up assistance given to German industry would repay itself many times over. Soon enough, another two billion marks would be loaned to the most enterprising companies. Nearly half would go into new wages and salaries, saving the treasury an estimated three hundred million marks in unemployment benefits. Added to the hundreds of millions in tax receipts spurred by the business recovery, the state quickly recovered its investment, and more.
Hitler’s entire economic policy would be based on the following equation: risk large sums to undertake great public works and to spur the renewal and modernization of industry, then later recover the billions invested through invisible and painless tax revenues. It didn’t take long for Germany to see the results of Hitler’s recovery formula.
Economic recovery, as important as it was, nevertheless wasn’t Hitler’s only objective. As he strived to restore full employment, Hitler never lost sight of his goal of creating a organization powerful enough to stand up to capitalist owners and managers, who had shown little concern for the health and welfare of the entire national community.
Hitler would impose on everyone — powerful boss and lowly wage earner alike — his own concept of the organic social community. Only the loyal collaboration of everyone could assure the prosperity of all classes and social groups.
Consistent with their doctrine, Germany’s Marxist leaders had set class against class, helping to bring the country to the brink of economic collapse. Deserting their Marxist unions and political parties in droves, most workers had come to realize that the endless strikes and grievances their leaders incited only crippled production, and thus the workers as well.
By the end of 1932, in any case, the discredited labor unions were drowning in massive debt that realistically could never be repaid. Some of the less scrupulous union officials, sensing the oncoming catastrophe, had begun stealing hundreds of thousands of marks from the workers they represented. The Marxist leaders had failed: socially, financially and morally.
Every joint human activity requires a leader. The head of a factory or business is also the person naturally responsible for it. He oversees every aspect of production and work. In Hitler’s Germany, the head of a business had to be both a capable director and a person concerned for the social justice and welfare of his employees. Under Hitler, many owners and managers who had proven to be unjust, incompetent or recalcitrant lost their jobs, or their businesses.
A considerable number of legal guarantees protected the worker against any abuse of authority at the workplace. Their purpose was to insure that the rights of workers were respected, and that workers were treated as worthy collaborators, not just as animated tools. Each industrialist was legally obliged to collaborate with worker delegates in drafting shop regulations that were not imposed from above but instead adapted to each business enterprise and its particular working conditions. These regulations had to specify “the length of the working day, the time and method of paying wages, and the safety rules, and to be posted throughout the factory,” within easy access of both the worker whose interests might be endangered and the owner or manager whose orders might be subverted.
The thousands of different, individual versions of such regulations served to create a healthy rivalry, with every factory group vying to outdo the others in efficiency and justice.
One of the first reforms to benefit German workers was the establishment of paid vacations. In France, the leftist Popular Front government would noisily claim, in 1936, to have originated legally mandated paid vacations — and stingy ones at that, only one week per year. But it was actually Hitler who first established them, in 1933 — and they were two to three times more generous.
Under Hitler, every factory employee had the legal right to paid vacation. Previously, paid vacations had not normally exceeded four or five days, and nearly half of the younger workers had no vacation time at all. If anything, Hitler favored younger workers; the youngest workers received more generous vacations. This was humane and made sense: a young person has more need of rest and fresh air to develop his maturing strength and vigor. Thus, they enjoyed a full 18 days of paid vacation per year.
Today, more than half a century later, these figures have been surpassed, but in 1933 they far exceeded European norms.
The standard vacation was twelve days. Then, from the age of 25 on, it went up to 18 days. After ten years with the company, workers got a still longer vacation: 21 days, or three times what the French socialists would grant the workers of their country in 1936.
Hitler introduced the standard forty-hour work week in Europe. As for overtime work, it was now compensated, as nowhere else in the continent at the time, at an increased pay rate. And with the eight-hour work day now the norm, overtime work became more readily available.
In another innovation, work breaks were made longer: two hours each day, allowing greater opportunity for workers to relax, and to make use of the playing fields that large industries were now required to provide.
Whereas a worker’s right to job security had been virtually non-existent, now an employee could no longer be dismissed at the sole discretion of the employer. Hitler saw to it that workers’ rights were spelled out and enforced. Henceforth, an employer had to give four weeks notice before firing and employee, who then had up to two months to appeal the dismissal. Dismissals could also be annulled by the “Courts of Social Honor” (Ehrengerichte).
This Court was one of three great institutions that were established to protect German workers. The others were the “Labor Commissions” and the “Council of Trust.”
The “Council of Trust” (Vertrauensrat) was responsible for establishing and developing a real spirit of community between management and labor. “In every business enterprise,” the 1934 “Labor Charter” law stipulated, “the employer and head of the enterprise (Fuhrer), the employees and workers, personnel of the enterprise, shall work jointly toward the goal of the enterprise and the common good of the nation.”
No longer would either be exploited by the other — neither the worker by arbitrary whim of the employer, nor the employer through the blackmail of strikes for political ends.
Article 35 of the “Labor Charter” law stated: “Every member of an enterprise community shall assume the responsibility required by his position in said common enterprise.” In short, each enterprise would be headed by a dynamic executive, charged with a sense of the greater community — no longer a selfish capitalist with unconditional, arbitrary power.
“The interest of the community may require that an incapable or unworthy employer be relieved of his duties,” the “Labor Charter” stipulated. The employer was no longer unassailable, an all-powerful boss with the last word on hiring and firing his staff. He, too, would be subject to the workplace regulations, which he was now obliged to respect no less than the least of his employees. The law conferred the honor and responsibility of authority on the employer only insofar as he merited it.
Every business enterprise of twenty or more persons now acquired a “Council of Trust” (Vertrauensrat), two to ten members of which were chosen from among the staff by the chief executive. The law’s implementation ordinance of March 10, 1934, further stated:
The staff shall be called upon to decide for or against the proposed list in a secret vote, and all salaried employees, including apprentices of twenty-one years of age or older, will take part in the vote. Voting is done by putting a number before the names of the candidates in order of preference, or by striking out certain names.
Unlike the enterprise councils (Betriebsrate) of pre-Hitler Germany, the Council of Trust was no longer a tool of one class. Comprising members from all levels of the enterprise, it was now an instrument of teamwork between classes. Obliged to coordinate their interests, former adversaries in the workplace now cooperated in establishing, by mutual consent, the regulations which determined working conditions.
The Council has the duty to develop mutual trust within the enterprise. It will advise on all measures serving to improve carrying out the work of the enterprise, and on standards relating to general work conditions, in particular those that concern measures tending to reinforce feelings of solidarity between the members themselves and between the members and the enterprise, or tending to improve the personal situation of the members of the enterprise community. The Council also has the obligation to intervene to settle disputes. It must be heard before the imposition of fines based on workshop regulations.
The law further required that, before assuming their duties, members of the Work Council had to take an oath before all their fellow workers to “carry out their duties only for the good of the enterprise and of all citizens, setting aside any personal interest, and in their behavior and manner of living to serve as model representatives of the enterprise.”
Every 30th of April, on the eve of the great national holiday of labor, Council terms ended and new elections were held. This helped to weed out incompetence, overcome stagnation, and prevent arrogance or careerism on the part of Council members.
The business enterprise paid a salary to each Council member, just as if he were employed in the office or on the shop floor, and had to “assume all costs resulting from the regular fulfillment of the duties of the Council.”
The second institution established to insure the orderly development of the new German social system was the “Labor Commission” (Reichstreuhander der Arbeit), the members of which were essentially conciliators and arbitrators. They were charged with dealing with and overcoming the inevitable frictions of the workplace. It was their function to see to it that the Councils of Trust functioned harmoniously and efficiently, and to ensure that a given business enterprise’s regulations were carried out to the letter.
Each of the thirteen Labor Commissions operated in its own district of the Reich. As arbitrators, they were independent of owners and employees. Appointed by the state, they represented rather the interests of everyone in the enterprise, and the interests of the national community. To minimize arbitrary or unfounded rulings, the Labor Commissions relied on the advice of a “Consultative Council of Experts,” consisting of 18 members selected from a cross section of the economy in each territorial district. As a further safeguard of impartiality, a third agency was superimposed on the Councils of Trust and the thirteen Commissions: the Tribunals of Social Honor.
Through these institutions, the German worker, from 1933 on, could count on a system of justice created especially for him, empowered to “adjudicate all grave infractions of the social duties based on the enterprise community.” Examples of such “violations of social honor” were cases in which an employer, abusing his power, mistreated his staff, or impugned the honor of his subordinates; in which a staff member threatened the harmony of the workplace by spiteful agitation; or in which a Council member misused or published confidential business information discovered in the course of his work.
Thirteen “Courts of Social Honor,” corresponding to the 13 Commissions, were established. The presiding judge was not a party hack or ideologue; he was a career jurist, above narrow interest. The enterprise concerned played a role in the Tribunal’s proceedings: two assistant judges, one representing management, the other a member of the Council of Trust, assisted the presiding judge.
Each Court of Social Honor (Ehrengericht), like any other court of law, had the means to enforce its decisions. There were nuances, though. In mild cases, decisions might be limited to a reprimand. In more serious cases, the guilty party could be fined up to 10,000 marks. Special sanctions, precisely adapted to the circumstances, were provided for. These included mandatory change of employment and dismissal of a chief executive, or his agent, who was found delinquent in his duty. In the event of a contested decision, the finding could be appealed to a Supreme Court in Berlin — yet another level of protection.
In the Third Reich, the worker knew that “exploitation of his physical strength in bad faith or in violation of his honor” was no longer tolerated. He had obligations to the community, but he shared these obligations with every other member of the enterprise, from the chief executive to the messenger boy. Finally, the German worker had clearly defined social rights, which were arbitrated and enforced by independent agencies. And while all this had been achieved in an atmosphere of justice and moderation, it nevertheless constituted a genuine social revolution.
By the end of 1933, the first effects of Hitler’s revolution in the workplace were being felt. Germany had already come a long way from the time when grimy bathrooms and squalid courtyards were the sole sanitary and recreational facilities available to workers.
Factories and shops, large and small, were altered or transformed to conform to the strictest standards of cleanliness and hygiene: interiors, so often dark and stifling, were opened up to light; playing fields were constructed; rest areas where workers could unbend during break, were set aside; employee cafeterias and respectable locker rooms were opened. The larger industrial establishments, in addition to providing the normally required conventional sports facilities, were obliged to put in swimming pools!
In just three years, these achievements would reach unimagined heights: more than two thousand factories refitted and beautified; 23,000 work premises modernized; 800 buildings designed exclusively for meetings; 1,200 playing fields; 13,000 sanitary facilities; 17,000 cafeterias.
To assure the healthy development of the working class, physical education courses were instituted for younger workers. Some 8,000 were eventually organized. Technical training was equally emphasized. Hundreds of work schools, and thousands of technical courses were created. There were examinations for professional competence, and competitions in which generous prizes were awarded to outstanding masters of their craft.
Eight hundred departmental inspectors and 17,300 local inspectors were employed to conscientiously monitor and promote these improvements.
To provide affordable vacations for German workers on a hitherto unprecedented scale, Hitler established the “Strength through Joy” program. As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers were now able to make relaxing vacation trips on land and sea each summer. Magnificent cruise ships were built, and special trains brought vacationers to the mountains and the seashore. In just a few years, Germany’s working-class tourists would log a distance equivalent to 54 times the circumference of the earth! And thanks to generous state subsidies, the cost to workers of these popular vacation excursions was nearly insignificant.
Were Hitler’s reforms perfect? Doubtless there were flaws, blunders and drawbacks. But what were a few inevitable mistakes beside the immense achievements?
Was Hitler’s transformation of the lot of the working class authoritarian? Without a doubt. And yet, for a people that had grown sick and tired of anarchy, this new authoritarianism wasn’t regarded as an imposition. In fact, people have always accepted a strong man’s leadership.
In any case, there is no doubt that the attitude of the German working class, which was still two-thirds non-Nazi at the start of 1933, soon changed completely. As Belgian author Marcel Laloire noted at the time:
When you make your way through the cities of Germany and go into the working-class districts, go through the factories, the construction yards, you are astonished to find so many workers on the job sporting the Hitler insignia, to see so many flags with the swastika, black on a bright red background, in the most densely populated districts.
Hitler’s “German Labor Front” (Deutsche Arbeitsfront), which incorporated all workers and employers, was for the most part eagerly accepted. The steel spades of the sturdy young lads of the “National Labor Service” (Reichsarbeitsdienst) could also be seen gleaming along the highways.
Hitler created the National Labor Service not only to alleviate unemployment, but to bring together, in absolute equality, and in the same uniform, both the sons of millionaires and the sons of the poorest families for several months’ common labor and living.
All performed the same work, all were subject to the same discipline; they enjoyed the same pleasures and benefited from the same physical and moral development. At the same construction sites and in the same barracks, Germans became conscious of what they had in common, grew to understand one another, and discarded their old prejudices of class and caste.
After a hitch in the National Labor Service, a young worker knew that the rich man’s son was not a pampered monster, while the young lad of a wealthy family knew that the worker’s son had no less honor than a nobleman or an heir to riches; they had lived and worked together as comrades. Social hatred was vanishing, and a socially united people was being born.
Hitler could go into factories — something few men of the so-called Right would have risked in the past — and hold forth to crowds of workers, at times in the thousands, as at the huge Siemens works. “In contrast to the von Papens and other country gentlemen,” he might tell them, “in my youth I was a worker like you. And in my heart of hearts, I have remained what I was then.”
During his twelve years in power, no untoward incident ever occurred at any factory he visited. Hitler was at home when he went among the people, and he was received like a member of the family returning home after making a success of himself.
But the Chancellor of the Third Reich wanted more than popular approval. He wanted that approval to be freely, widely, and repeatedly expressed by popular vote. No people was ever more frequently asked for their electoral opinion than the German people of that era — five times in five years.
For Hitler, it was not enough that the people voted from time to time, as in the previous democratic system. In those days, voters were rarely appealed to, and when they expressed an opinion, they were often ill-informed and apathetic. After an election, years might go by, during which the politicians were heedless and inaccessible, the electorate powerless to vote on their actions.
To enable the German public to express its opinion on the occasion of important events of social, national, or international significance, Hitler provided the people a new means of approving or rejecting his own actions as Chancellor: the plebiscite.
Hitler recognized the right of all the people, men and women alike, to vote by secret ballot: to voice their opinion of his policies, or to make a well-grounded judgment on this or that great decision in domestic or foreign affairs. Rather than a formalistic routine, democracy became a vital, active program of supervision that was renewed annually.
The articles of the “Plebiscite Law” were brief and clear:
1. The Reich government may ask the people whether or not it approves of a measure planned by or taken by the government. This may also apply to a law.
2. A measure submitted to plebiscite will be considered as established when it receives a simple majority of the votes. This will apply as well to a law modifying the Constitution.
3. If the people approves the measure in question, it will be applied in conformity with article II of the Law for Overcoming the Distress of the People and the Reich. The Reich Interior Ministry is authorized to take all legal and administrative measures necessary to carry out this law.
Berlin, July 14, 1933. Hitler, Frick
The electoral pledge given by Hitler that day was not vain rhetoric. One national referendum followed another: in 1933, in 1934, in 1936, and in 1938, not to mention the Saar plebiscite of 1935, which was held under international supervision.
The ballot was secret, and the voter was not constrained. No one could have prevented a German from voting no if he wished. And, in fact, a certain number did vote no in every plebiscite. Millions of others could just as easily have done the same. However, the percentage of “No” votes remained remarkably low — usually under ten percent. In the Saar region, where the plebiscite of January 1935 was supervised from start to finish by the Allies, the result was the same as in the rest of the Reich: more than 90 percent voted “Yes” to unification with Hitler’s Germany! Hitler had no fear of such secret ballot plebiscites because the German people invariably supported him.
From the first months of 1933, his accomplishments were public fact, for all to see. Before the end of the year, unemployment in Germany had fallen from more than 6,000,000 to 3,374,000. Thus, 2,627,000 jobs had been created since the previous February, when Hitler began his “gigantic task!” A simple question: Who in Europe ever achieved similar results in so short a time?
More than two and a half million working-class homes once again knew bread and joy; more than ten million men, women and children of the working class, after years of want, had regained their vigor, and had been returned to the national community.
Hitler’s popularity took on some astonishing, indeed comical, aspects. “A brand of canned herring,” Joachim Fest relates, “was called ‘Good Adolf.’ Coin banks were made in the form of SA caps. Bicarbonate of soda was recommended with the advertising slogan ‘My Struggle (Mein Kampf) against flatulence’! Pictures of Hitler appeared on neckties, handkerchiefs, pocket mirrors, and the swastika decorated ash trays and beer mugs, or served as an advertisement for a brand of margarine.” Annoyed by such fawning (and exploitative) use of his name, and the emblem of his party, Hitler ordered that it be discontinued immediately.
The economic and social transformation of the Reich impressed observers no less than the political transformation wrought by the leader of National Socialism. Gottfried Benn, Germany’s greatest poet of that era — and a man of the Left — wrote to an expatriate friend, Klaus Mann:
I personally declare myself in favor of the new State, because it is my people that is making its way now. Who am I to exclude myself; do I know anything better? No! Within the limits of my powers I can try to guide the people to where I would like to see it … My intellectual and economic existence, my language, my life, my human relationships, the entire sum of my brain, I owe primarily to this nation. My ancestors came from it; my children return to it . . . There are moments in which this whole tormented life falls away and nothing exists but the plains, expanses, seasons, soil, simple words: my people. (See: J. Fest, Hitler, New York: 1974, p. 428.)
In his detailed and critical biography of Hitler, Joachim Fest limited his treatment of Hitler’s extraordinary social achievements in 1933 to a few paragraphs. All the same, Fest did not refrain from acknowledging:
The regime insisted that it was not the rule of one social class above all others, and by granting everyone opportunities to rise, it in fact demonstrated class neutrality … These measures did indeed break through the old, petrified social structures. They tangibly improved the material condition of much of the population. (J. Fest, Hitler, pp. 434-435.)
Not without reason were the swastika banners waving proudly throughout the working-class districts where, just a year ago, they had been unceremoniously torn down.
Source: Leon Degrelle, “How Hitler Consolidated Power in Germany and Launched a Social Revolution,” Journal of Historical Review, Volume 12, Number 3 (Fall 1992).
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